Biographie / Photo
THE GREAT NADAR
by Adam Begley
July 2017 – Crown
A dazzling, stylish biography of a fabled Parisian photographer, adventurer, and pioneer.
Who doesn’t know Nadar? In France, that’s a rhetorical question. Of all of the legendary figures who thrived in mid-19th-century Paris—a cohort that includes Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Gustave Courbet, and Alexandre Dumas—Nadar was perhaps the most innovative, the most restless, the most modern.
The first great portrait photographer, a pioneering balloonist, the first person to take an aerial photograph, and the prime mover behind the first airmail service, Nadar was one of the original celebrity artist-entrepreneurs. A kind of 19th-century Andy Warhol, he knew everyone worth knowing and photographed them all, conferring on posterity psychologically compelling portraits of Manet, Sarah Bernhardt, Delacroix, Daumier and countless others—a priceless panorama of Parisian celebrity.
Born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, he adopted the pseudonym Nadar as a young bohemian, when he was a budding writer and cartoonist. Later he affixed the name Nadar to the façade of his opulent photographic studio in giant script, the illuminated letters ten feet tall, the whole sign fifty feet long, a garish red beacon on the boulevard. Nadar became known to all of Europe and even across the Atlantic when he launched « The Giant, » a gas balloon the size of a twelve-story building, the largest of its time. With his daring exploits aboard his humongous balloon (including a catastrophic crash that made headlines around the world), he gave his friend Jules Verne the model for one of his most dynamic heroes.
THE GREAT NADAR is a brilliant, lavishly illustrated biography of a larger-than-life figure, a visionary whose outsized talent and canny self-promotion put him way ahead of his time.
Adam Begley is the author of the acclaimed 2014 biography, Updike. He was the books editor for the New York Observer from 1996 to 2009. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, New York Times Magazine, Financial Times, Guardian, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, and many others.
Praise and reviews
« A superb account of one of the nineteenth century’s most irrepressible spirits. Nadar was the founding genius of photography, especially portraiture, a heroic, disaster-prone balloonist, as well as a journalist, cartoonist, would-be revolutionary and one of the first ‘bohemians’. Adam Begley brilliantly evokes the Paris of the Second Republic and Second Empire, its gloriously impoverished and eccentric artistic milieu, its squalor and political turmoil. Nadar knew everyone and took the photographs of the men and women who defined the era. Here the best work is excellently reproduced and discussed with great sensitivity and insight; from every point of viewTHE GREAT NADAR is a beautiful book. » —Ian McEwan
Featured as an Editors’ choice in the New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly‘s Pick of the Week
“This taut, engaging biography of the nineteenth-century photographer Nadar presents its subject as a consummate artist who also had a preternatural understanding of the new celebrity culture, with its twin gods of photography and publicity. . . . Begley creates a vibrant portrait of Second Empire Paris through one of its most colorful characters.”—The New Yorker
“A window on an era of extraordinary artistic endeavor. . . . Mr. Begley has combed through an array of literature, letters, guest books, invitations, drawings and other miscellany to tease out a nuanced portrait of one of the world’s first celebrity artist-entrepreneurs.” —The Wall Street Journal